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Humpback Whales: An Endangered Species Act Success Story?

A humpback breaches, catapulting nearly its entire body out of the water. Credit: Amy Kennedy/NOAA

More Information

Media Release

Recording of Humpback Media Call 4/20/15

Humpback Whales: Myth vs. Fact

Humpback Whale species page
 



Humpback Whale. (Megaptera novaeangliae) Credit: NOAA NEFSC.

Are humpback whales still endangered, or have their populations recovered enough since whaling ended that they can now be taken off the Endangered Species List? 

NOAA Fisheries scientists have spent several years researching this question, and their answer is not a simple yes or no. Instead, the Agency identified 14 distinct population segments of humpback whales, 10 of which we identified as not warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The other four still appear vulnerable to extinction currently or within the foreseeable future and require the continued protection of the ESA.

Humpback Whales Make a Comeback

NOAA Fisheries believes humpback whales have rebounded in many areas, with high abundance and steady rates of population growth. This determination is based on a recent review of the best available scientific and commercial information by an expert group of scientists.

We also identified 14 distinct population segments of humpback whales. A distinct population segment is a term coined in the 1978 amendments to the Endangered Species Act that allows species to be divided into distinct subgroups or populations based on a number of characteristics.

Of the distinct population segments identified, 10 appear to no longer be in danger of extinction or likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. For instance, the West Indies population is growing at a modest 2 percent a year and the East Australia population is growing at an average rate of almost 11 percent a year.

Changing Status, But Not Protection

We determined the abundance and growth rates are high enough and threats low enough for 10 distinct population segments that they are no longer threatened or endangered. This prompted us to propose changing the status of these humpback whale populations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under the proposed rule, we recommend not including these populations on the ESA list. 

This doesn’t mean humpback whales are left unprotected. The other four distinct population segments that still appear vulnerable to extinction will remain under ESA protections as a result of our proposal to extend the protections that automatically apply to the endangered populations to the threatened populations also. In addition, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) provides substantial protections to all marine mammals in U.S. waters, including humpback whales. This protection exists regardless of whether each distinct population segment is listed under the ESA. And for those populations outside of U.S. waters, the International Whaling Commission provides protection from whaling. 
Humpback whales still have blankets of protection.

Adding Management Flexibility

The changes we propose are significant because they are recognition that the species is doing well and most populations are growing as a result of the Endangered Species Act protections. And moving forward, having identified these distinct population segments, we now have the flexibility to focus our efforts where they are needed the most, on those specific populations that are in danger of extinction or likely to become so.

We’d like to hear what you think. The proposed rule is open for public comment through July 20, 2015.